Just like the shoes on your feet, the watch you wear can reveal a great deal about your character. While these are extreme ends of the sartorial scale, your choice of watch could result in you appearing cheap or showy – both qualities which any self-respecting gentleman would do their utmost to avoid. To help you in your search for the perfect men’s watch, or perhaps even to stir up an interest in watch collecting and horology, we’d like to run through the history of iconic watches and important developments along the way. We hope you have the time to stick around!
1900 to 1910 Men’s Watches– From Pocket to Wrist
If you were to build a time machine and transport yourself back to the 1900s, you would be greeted by smartly-dressed men dressed very formally compared to these modern times of leisurewear and synthetic materials (please do read our 1900s menswear article so you don’t stand out for the wrong reasons).
Now, if you were to approach one of these gentlemen to ask for the time (as well as perhaps to check the year, to ensure your time machine worked correctly), he would no doubt have a pocket watch ensconced inside his vest and a shiny chain of gold or silver dangling a little in front of him which the watch was fixed to. I must admit, there’s something about a gentleman with a pocket watch that makes me feel all fuzzy and warm inside. As the occasional wearer of a pocket watch (I have three in the collection), there’s a delicious moment when you reach into your vest pocket to retrieve your antiquated timepiece. Finding out the actual time is neither here nor there.
The two leading American watch companies when the watch industry first began were the Waltham Watch Company and Elgin. These were followed by Illinois Watch Company, Hampden and the final survivor, Hamilton.
Before settling on Waltham Watch Company, the watch business went through many name changes including Boston Watch Company, Appleton Tracy & Company, American Watch Company, and the slightly longer American Waltham Watch Company.
Elgin was originally called the National Watch Company and was founded in Elgin, Illinois. Interestingly, Elgin never made their own pocket watch cases, which were manufactured by Illinois Watch Case Company. Right up to the 1920s, it was common practice for customers to select watch movements and cases separately, which the local watchmaker would then fit.
Although wristwatches were already around at the beginning of the twentieth century, they were favored by ladies and, as such, were marketed as delicate bracelets. Men, on the other hand (excuse the pun), were sticklers for tradition and preferred the tried and tested pocket watch, which they would secure to their vest using a fob and chain.
As with most menswear, we have the military to thank for making men see the benefit of a wristwatch. During the Second Boer War, which ran in South Africa between 1899 and 1902, it was important that soldiers could precisely synchronize military movements. With thoughts perhaps turning to their loved ones back home and understanding that accuracy meant everything, the men crudely modified their pocket watches so that they could strap them to their wrists. Having a makeshift wristwatch allowed soldiers to check the time with a quick glance, rather than the ceremony of taking a pocket watch out of their battledress pocket.
Despite this, it was yet to catch on with gentlemen still favoring the pocket watch. But then, who can blame them? Pocket watches are truly exquisite.
1910 to 1920 – From Battlefield to Fashion Accessory
While the Second Boer War merely hinted at wristwatches for men, it took the First World War to bring the concept to a wider and more receptive audience. Hamilton, founded in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1892, introduced its first wristwatch in 1917. It was especially designed to appeal to men entering World War One. The company became the official watch supplier to the US military, becoming particularly known for their pilot’s watches, leading the way as wars moved to the sky.
Now with men returning from military duty had experienced first-hand the simple effectiveness of the wristwatch, it finally started to be accepted by the masses. Of course, watchmakers marketed it as being worn on the battlefield, giving it that extra dose of masculinity to help shift it away from being a decorative item for ladies.
In the same year that Hamilton released their first wristwatch, a truly iconic wristwatch was produced – the Cartier Tank. As you may already know, or have guessed from the name, the Cartier Tank was a rectangular watch modeled on the boxy profile of the Renault armored battle tank that Louis Cartier witnessed with his own eyes in France.
Released in 1917, the watch had a clean and almost timeless design. Apparently, the following year, Cartier presented Tank watches to American General John Joseph Pershing, helping to cement the watch’s place in history. The interesting design aspect of the Cartier was the shape of the watch case, which was a big change away from the usual round watches that were available. The strap was also fully integrated with the watch case and not merely a way to attach the watch to the wrist.
1920 to 1930 – The Waterproof Wristwatch
During the 1920s, the Cartier Tank established itself as one of the most desired watches on the market. This was helped by a number of movie stars that began to wear it. It made its first appearance on the silver screen on the wrist of Rudolph Valentino in the 1926 movie The Son of the Sheik. Other notable celebrities to have worn it in later years include Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Andy Warhol.
Between 1920 to 1928, there was one company that sold more than half the watches made in America – Elgin National Watch Company.
While Elgin was a go-to brand for the average American man, the Swiss brand Rolex was busy building its reputation for luxury timepieces. In 1926, Rolex developed the first ever waterproof watch. The wristwatch, known as the Oyster, featured an hexagonal patented case with a screw-down crown and caseback. While not a diving watch, it was certainly good enough for swimming. In fact, Rolex’s waterproof claims were well and truly put to the test the following year, when young English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze wore it around her neck as she swam across the English Channel. After more than ten hours in the water, the watch was in perfect working order at the end of the challenge.
As most Oyster watch cases were made from precious metals, they would certainly have been worn by wealthy gentlemen during the 1920s.
What was interesting about the Rolex Oyster wristwatch was that it was self-winding, known now as an automatic watch. Rolex didn’t invent this, but they did develop it. The first efforts to make a watch self-winding rather than wound by hand dates all the way to the 1770s. The true revolution in automatic watches took place after World War One. Automatic watches are powered by kinetic movement, so once watches were worn on the wrist rather than in pockets, it finally allowed real progress to take place.
1930 to 1940 – A Watch Fit for a King
Following the Wall Street Crash in 1929, times were extremely tough financially, so during the 1930s it was commonplace for people to trade their gold or silver case from their watch for some much-needed money. Of course, for those fortunate enough to be wealthy, they had no such problems.
If the Cartier Tank was the iconic watch of the 1920s, then the 1930s belonged to the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. Released in 1931, the Reverso was an Art Deco masterpiece. We have polo to thank for bringing the Reverso to the watch world. During the 1930s, British army officers enjoyed playing ‘the sport of kings,’ but due to the rigors on the sportsfield, players would often find their favorite watch had been damaged.
A man called César De Trey realized there was an opportunity for a watch that could withstand strikes from errant polo mallets and balls. The result was a patented watch case that allowed the watch to be flipped over while on the wrist, leaving a ‘polo ready’ protective metal case back. The Reverso was born. With angular lugs and three horizontal grooves above and below the elegant dial, the Reverso was an instant design classic and became a symbol for the Art Deco period.
Usually, the back of watches would contain information such as the name of the watch maker or a serial number, but what also made the Reverso stand out from the crowd was a gloriously blank caseback. This was quickly seized upon by watch owners, allowing them to personalize their Reverso with a coat of arms, inscriptions, or something equally memorable to the individual.
The Reverso was worn by the rich and famous, including King Edward VIII during his short reign on the British throne. If you’re keen on 1960s television show Mad Men, Don Draper wore a Reverso to symbolize his new partner status during the second season of the period drama.
Another famous man, or should I say mouse, set a trend for all things Disney. Mickey Mouse themed watches were trendy with all men still young at heart.
1940 to 1950 – The Watch that Won the War
When America joined the allies in World War Two in 1941, wristwatches quickly moved from prized possessions to essential pieces of military equipment.
The US military needed a watch that was durable, accurate and functional, so provided a specification to watchmaking companies across the United States. Three of the biggest, Bulova, Elgin, and Waltham Watch Company impressed and dedicated themselves to making the A-11, which is considered to be the ‘watch that won the war’.
Although the A-11 varied slightly with different cases, dials and hands, the watch did feature universal design features. The A-11 had a black dial and white hands (for good visibility), a hand-wound hacking movement (this means that the seconds hand could be stopped, allowing for super accurate synchronization) and hour numbers from 1 to 12. Some A-11 watches also had a coin-edge bezel and caseback, while some watches were waterproof and some were dustproof.
Another big watch company, Hamilton, produced the forces with a million timepieces during the war. Two notable pieces were the Khaki pilot’s watch and the Marine Chronometer. The chronometer was vital as it helped the navy to calculate longitude and to plot location and direction. Realizing that radio signals to find position could be intercepted by the enemy, the US Navy relied on the marine chronometer to do the job instead.
Today, these military watches are much sought-after by collectors and history enthusiasts, and are treasured by families who inherited the watches from loved ones.
Following the end of World War Two, Rolex released yet another ground-breaker – the world’s first self-changing date watch, called the Datejust. Released to celebrate Rolex’s 40th anniversary, the Datejust featured a Jubilee bracelet, which was made especially for the watch and boasted a fluted bezel. This was a truly luxurious timepiece, and although a watch with a date feature may be taken for granted today, this was a truly remarkable and important innovation in the history of watches.
Given that Rolex’s 40 year history up until this point had coincided with two huge wars, there’s no doubt that Rolex, along with other Swiss watch makers, benefited from Switzerland’s foreign policy to not be involved in armed conflicts.
1950s to 1960s – Pioneering Watches
In the 1950s, Rolex released three timepieces that are absolute classics still today. Not content with launching the first waterproof watch in the 1920s and the first self-changing date watch in the 1930s, the 1950s witnessed the introduction of three professional tool watches for high-action pursuits such as mountain climbing, deep-sea diving, and aviation.
First up was the Rolex Explorer, which was released to celebrate the first ever successful ascent of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay (who carried their own Rolex wristwatches to the summit, along with an English-made Smiths Deluxe watch). Since then, the Explorer watch has gone through a further three models, which are classic watches highly regarded today.
Next up was the Rolex Submariner. The Swiss watch maker claims that this was the first divers’ watch waterproof to a depth of 100 meters. There is some doubt to that claim, though, as another watch maker, Blancpain, released their own dive watch, the Fifty Fathoms, in the same year.
Anyway, the Rolex Submariner was and remains an undisputed classic. As a big James Bond fan, I instinctively associate the Submariner with the British spy, 007. Sean Connery wore the Rolex Submariner, ref. 6538, in the first four James Bond pictures. It certainly left an impression on many others, too, making it almost acceptable to have a huge dive watch strapped to your wrist while dressed in a black tuxedo. After all, if it’s good enough for Bond, it’s good enough for you.
As if that wasn’t enough, Rolex followed these two watches with the GMT-Master, capable of telling the time in two time zones at once. This watch was the ultimate in luxury as it was aimed at the jet-set, those fortunate trend setters that regularly traveled by airplane. Ten years after its 1954 release, it was worn on the wrist of Honor Blackman, who starred alongside Sean Connery as Pussy Galore in the iconic Bond movie, Goldfinger.
1960 to 1970 – The First Watch on the Moon
When American astronauts successfully landed on the moon in 1969 to take “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, ” Russia was defeated in the Space Race. Strapped to the astronauts’ wrists on long velcro straps was a watch that had passed NASA’s stringent tests with flying colors, the Omega Speedmaster Professional.
Although Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, it was his fellow astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, who was wearing the watch on the moon’s surface. Commander Armstrong left his Omega timepiece back inside the capsule, as the mission timer wasn’t working.
Ever since that historic moment, the Speedmaster Professional (known affectionately as the Speedy or Moonwatch) has been desired by millions of people the world over, keen to wear a piece of history on their own wrists. It is testament to the classic aesthetics of the watch, which was released by Omega 12 years before the moon landing, that little has changed to the Speedy, which is still available today.
Before the Apollo 11 mission, NASA was looking for the ideal watch that could survive the trauma of space. Omega, Longines, Rolex, and Hamilton each supplied a watch to be put through extensive tests, and the Omega Speedmaster Professional was the only one that passed every one.
As well as the Space Race, there was another race being run during the 1960s – a race among watch makers to develop the first quartz wristwatch. Japanese brand Seiko won this particular race when they unveiled the Seiko Quartz-Astron 35SQ on 25 December 1969. Seiko’s Swiss challengers didn’t unveil their quartz watch until the following year at the Basel Fair.
Renowned for their accuracy and cheaper to produce in later years, the introduction of quartz watches would lead to huge repercussions for the watch making industry. But that story is for another time and place.